Tag Archives: teaching

murphybook_smallThis is the second entry in a new series of posts called "From the Archives." They will be pulled from Murphy's many years of monthly Banjo Newsletter columns. Some of these are collected in her book ...and there you have it! This excerpt is from her August 1983 article, in which she talks about her approach to teaching banjo.

I know exactly why I teach. One: to make money. I'll be the first to admit that it's great to make money doing something you enjoy. Two: to keep the banjo in my hands five hours a day, twice a week. If I didn't teach, I seriously don't think I would take my banjo out of the case between gigs. Three: to keep me learning. I learn so much by teaching. Just last week I finally learned Earl's last "D" lick in The Ballad of Jed Clampett---the one with all those backward rolls. I was so excited. I played if for Red. He was unexcited but appreciative. Can you imagine how wonderful it is to say to your spouse, "Listen to this D lick out of Jed Clampett!" and have him not only understand what you are talking about, but also say, "You missed a note." I love it.

I started teaching banjo in 1974, which means I have been teaching for nine years. I started out with the Earl Scruggs book and one student. I had only been playing banjo for a year but I knew more than she did, so we went at it.

I had the makings of a good teacher. I loved playing the banjo. I loved teaching, and I had a lot of patience, but, with hindsight, I can see that I was not yet a good teacher. I had to teach myself how to teach. I am still learning how to teach. [...]

When I started teaching I was concerned only with teaching lead breaks. I was (and still am) a firm believer in three aspects of teaching banjo. One: students want to learn to play something immediately, so show them hand position, three rolls, and start them on a song! Two: students should learn the basic Scruggs style first, and learn it right. Three: students need to hear how the songs sound so record them on a cassette, both fast and slow.

My philosophy of teaching was summed up beautifully in the June 6, 1983 issue of Sports Illustrated. It was in an article about Warren Bosworth, a U.S. Professional Tennis Association teaching pro. The article said: He believes the standard teaching methods are so wrongheaded that they scare off thousands of beginners each year. "Generally," he said, "the attitude of teaching pros is, 'If you don't learn what I teach you, you're a dummy.' My approach is, if you don't learn, I'm the dummy."

I approach teaching from the standpoint that I can teach almost anyone to play the banjo if they have a reasonable amount of intelligence, dexterity, and dedication. (I only ask for thirty minutes a day---every day. I know my people have jobs and families.)

Then, if a student is having trouble learning, I must assume I am doing something wrong. And that is generally one of two things: the arrangement of the song is too hard, or I am trying to make him learn too fast.

There is more to this column, and if you have Murphy's book you can find it on page 4. If you don't have Murphy's book then, well...why don't you have Murphy's book!?

murphybook_smallThis is the first entry in a new series of posts called "From the Archives." They will be pulled from Murphy's many years of monthly Banjo Newsletter columns. Some of these are collected in her book ...and there you have it! This excerpt comes from the very first column she wrote in June of 1983. [Editor's note: I was five at the time. She was younger than I am now! Yikes! -Casey]

2:30 I leave our house on the outskirts of the Hawthorne, Florida, metropolis and head toward Gainesville, where I teach at Modern Music Workshop. Do I have everything? Two notebooks---one for book-keeping, one for writing down snatches of songs that might occur on the twenty-minute drive to and from Gainesville (the ones I jot down at night are the best---car weaving from one side of the road to the other---pen weaving from one side of the paper to the other as I try to write in the dark). [Editor's note: and we think texting and driving is dangerous?!] Cassette of Ralph Stanley to listen to in case someone doesn't show up. Pocketbook. Checkbook. Money. Banjo? Banjo! Expletive deleted.

As I turn the car around and had back home, I remark to myself that this happens only about twice a year, and why does it have to happen today when I'm late already?

Five minutes later, banjo safely ensconced behind the seat of my 1971 Pinto with the bumper sticker that reads, "Scruggs Do It Earlier," I am on my way. [Editor's Note: If anyone has ever seen an actual bumper sticker that says that, please let us know.]

I arrive at the studio right at 3:00 to find my first student waiting. I teach ten students a day, two days each week, running half-hour lessons back-to-back from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m.

3:00 My first student is Freddy. He is seven years old and has been taking banjo for nine months. He has an El Cheapo banjo which we have to capo up to the fifth fret in order for him to reach the fingerboard. Freddy started with me and can play nine songs: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, and so forth. For today he was to learn the second phrase of the low break to Foggy Mountain Breakdown---that's the E-minor part.

We tune up and he plays Foggy Mountain Breakdown. he does a good job and I can tell he has put in a lot of time practicing. You can always tell. I remind him again to be sure to use his thumb the second time he does the FMB hammer-on. We go over that a few times, and then I record the last phrase of the tune for him. I don't use tab, so I play the tune onto a cassette tape and explain it note-for-note. Then I play the whole tune slowly so that he can play along. We spend the rest of the time playing together, with me on guitar. I am amazed at how well he can play--not perfectly, but he seems to have the knack. Then the time is up. See you next week, Freddy.

3:30 My next student is Mary McEntyre. She doesn't show up. She does that a lot.

4:00 My next student is Bill. He is a transfer from another teacher who taught strictly by tab. This is his second lesson with me. Hill knows a lot of songs, but he plays too fast and his playing is really sloppy---I've told him so. But I've learned that it's best not to try to correct the tunes a student already knows. Instead, we start on new ones, get them right, and hope that the new technique transfers. I had put down Groundspeed for him last week; it was his first experience learning from tape. "Did you have any trouble?" I ask. "No." he says. "Okay," I say. "We'll see." he has learned all the notes, and can play them, not as cleanly as I would like but okay. I correct his right hand fingering on all those "G" positions moving down the neck. For next week, what shall we do? "Do you know Cumberland Gap?" "Yes." "Then, for next week we'll do Sally Goodwin." (I'm to find out later that he only meant he knew the low break to Cumberland Gap---not the high break, which is essential to learning Sally Goodwin. This will result in a frantic phone call to me late one night---"I can't get it!"---whereupon I will talk him through Sally Goodwin over the phone, and listen to him play until he gets it right. Fortunately, it's on his nickel. See you later Bill. [Editor's note: You can tell these were Murphy's early days of teaching. These days she won't give Sally Goodwin to anyone unless they've been taking from her for years!]

Tune in next week for more of Murphy's exciting adventures in banjo teaching!